New York (AFP) – The conviction of cultural icon turned national pariah Bill Cosby on sexual assault charges was a bitter-sweet victory for advocates of women making similar charges against powerful men in Hollywood, the media and elsewhere.
And they hope it will lead to more such convictions amid the groundswell of allegations that have come forward since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke late last year.
“I think now there is tremendous awareness of how these crimes have been covered up and papered over for the years,” US District Attorney Kevin Steele said after the jury convicted the comedian on Thursday, six months after the emergence of the #MeToo movement of women who suffered sexual mistreatment by men.
“And all women that are out there standing up and telling their truth, I, we, support them and encourage them to keep it up,” said Steele.
“And I hope now everybody recognizes that here you are going to be treated with dignity and respect through the process,” he added.
Cosby’s first trial ended last June with a hung jury, hopelessly deadlocked after 52 hours of deliberations.
The 80-year-old’s conviction in the first celebrity courtroom battle of the #MeToo era “is a notice to sexual predators everywhere,” said the National Organization for Women.
“His victims can now exhale. Thank you, judge and jury. Thank you society for waking up,” tweeted Rose McGowan, who was among the first actresses to accuse Weinstein, a powerful producer, of sexual abuse in the wave the ultimately brought him crashing down.
The flood of reactions reflects the exceptional nature of Cosby’s conviction.
– Rarely charged –
In recent years many powerful men in America have been accused of sexual assault. But few have actually been charged, even if the number of probes has soared with the #MeToo movement.
Weinstein’s is the most flagrant case.
He has been accused of abuses ranging from harassment to rape by more than 100 women since October, prompting probes in Los Angeles, New York and London. But he has not been charged.
Weinstein’s lawyer, Ben Brafman, has said his client never engaged in non-consensual sex. But pressure on prosecutors in New York is growing, and they have beefed up their team of investigators.
Other celebrities from other areas have also been accused of sexual misconduct, including the actor Kevin Spacey, Metropolitan Opera director James Levine, and, in France, the Franco-Swiss theologian Tariq Ramadan. Most have been forced to resign or humiliated out of public life.
But apart from Ramadan none of these men have been charged so far.
Cases are hard to carry forward. This is because of a lack of physical evidence of sexual assault, as in Cosby’s case, and court proceedings that depend largely on contradictory testimony from defendant and accuser.
Although some abuse victims might be encouraged by the Cosby verdict and the movement spawned by #MeToo, “there is still going to be hesitation for the victim to come forward because there is a feeling sometimes of shame,” said Julie Rendelman, a New York lawyer who has worked on several of these cases.
“It’s is not going to be a piece of cake. And it should not be easy, because an accusation is an accusation,” she said.
The Cosby verdict does not necessarily signal a trend, she said, because he was accused by dozens of women and of having a habitual way of operating — which is odd in this kind of offense even if does apply, too, to Weinstein.
Cosby could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. His lawyer has pledged to appeal, so the judge could leave him free on bail while awaiting a possible third trial.